Monday, May 4, 2015

Will You Even Tell Her if You Decide to Make the Sky Fall (SimCity, Populous, ActRaiser)

CREATE AND MANAGE A LIVING CITY
The history of urban planning is ultimately one of control machines - of efforts to build spaces that will shape the lives and psyches of its inhabitants. Housing developments to sort and contain them, roads to dictate the ways in which they move through space, and lattices of utilities and infrastructure that transmute the abstract relationships of power that govern them into brutal physicality. It is the creative practice to which psychogeography is the criticism.

It is, of course, an illusion that the city is some sort of authored construct. Even moreso than the video game, where our convenient fiction of an auteur figure like “Will Wright” is in reality a mask worn by a team of developers and, in the case of a game like SimCity, a swath of teams responsible for the huge number of ports and versions. The iteration of SimCity that served as a launch title for the Super Nintendo is one of more than a dozen - it was a game that existed on the Commodore 64, the Amiga, the Macintosh, the BBC Micro, and others, all taking the smear of psychic landscape attributed to Will Wright and adapting it to new forms, with varying degrees of success.

[In practice, this is one of the rare cases where the console port is a highlight, at least in one sense. Ported by Nintendo EAD, it not only has the charming detail of Bowser in place of the generic lizard monster disaster, and adds an interesting system of special buildings like casinos and libraries that can be built under certain circumstances. Though in the end, little can remove the basic problem that a Super Nintendo controller is an unsatisfying replacement for a mouse when it comes to this sort of game.]

The city, like the video game, is multi-authored, a teeming mass of viewpoints and visions. And this includes not merely the ostensible creators - the programmers and urban planners - but those who are shaped and interpolated by it, and whose interactions with it define it; a city without inhabitants is as barren as a game without players. But citizens and gamers are two very different things. The gamer cannot, in the end, change the game in ways beyond those strictly delineated for him. The citizen, on the other hand, has meaningful resistance as an option.

Ironically, the difference is one of escapability. The gamer can quit the game, whereas nothing the citizen does can ever render them no longer a citizen - even if they move to some other city, they are still a citizen of something that has far more similarities than differences to the original. But because citizenship is inescapable, it in turn cannot fully reject the dissident. Put another way, the city can bulldoze the crime-ridden slums and replace them with a row of gleaming stadiums, but the list of the biggest problems in the city and a non-zero disapproval rate are irreducible elements of its existence.

But what is interesting about SimCity is that it puts the player in the position not of the citizen, nor even of the mayor (who is in the end just another citizen), but instead in the position of the urban planner cum deity. A city may not be singly authored, but a SimCity is - the product of a singular vision, a solitary creator whose will is made manifest, hand of god literally represented on the screen.

THE ULTIMATE TRIUMPH OF GOOD OVER EVIL
SimCity is not properly a god game - that genre originated with Populous, another of the early SNES games, coming out a month after the console’s launch (neatly paralleling the games original releases in 1989, four months apart). The premise is about what you’d expect from a genre called “god game” - the player is, instead of urban planner, a deity trying to lead his followers to climactic battle against the followers of a malevolent AI deity.

Unfortunately, instead of the post-Singularity dystopia the phrase “malevolent AI deity” invokes, the game is in practice a play mechanic based on raising and lowering terrain to build a nice flat plain that your followers can settle on and expand, disrupting AI-controlled terrain with things like earthquakes and volcanoes, and attempt to repair the damage caused by corresponding attacks on your own terrain. It’s not an awful mechanic, certainly, but it is, equally, not difficult to tell why, of the two gods-eye-view simulators first released in the first half of 1989 it is SimCity that has the rather grander legacy.

But it is nevertheless Populous that is the more enticing game - the one that crackles with symbolic possibility. It is one thing to be a mayor, and quite another to be a god. The latter is so close to the animating fantasy of the video game as to almost defy critical comprehension. There is no obvious metaphor or comment to make. Its implications are obvious, not least within the context of an occultic take on video games.

It is telling, though, that Populous is at its core a game about destruction. The player’s capacity to build things is, to say the least, limited; for the most part, it is the milling peasants who do anything constructive. This, at least, is in contrast with SimCity, where the game as such consists of building things: roads, power grids, houses, et cetera. Populous is, in many ways, SimCity with just a bulldozer.

But this reveals the other truth - that SimCity is, in the end, just as invested in the aesthetic of destruction as Populous. It is no secret that the game’s appeal is fundamentally tied to the fact that the player does not simply build cities, but unleashes fearsome natural disasters upon them. This is, clearly an irreducible part of the game. Without it, the game would be an exercise in homeostasis. The only challenge of any significance would be the patience to manage money, which, with even remotely sensible city planning, is really just a matter of being willing to wait for the year to tip over and the tax revenues to come in. In this regard, its suitability for the desktop computer is obvious - it’s essentially made to interact with for a few minutes, then leave to run in the background while you do other things. (Indeed, I’ve got a version of the open sourced Micropolis version of the game running as I write this.)

Even with natural disasters, the game is not hard as such. Most natural disasters are simply resource management challenges, in which you either do or don’t have enough money to chase behind the problem with your bulldozer and make sure there are sufficient fire departments. They add little to the game save for making it impossible to safely leave it to run in the background. Their real purpose is simply to allow for destruction - so that when one tires of one’s city (an inevitability, given that they really do eventually achieve sustainable homeostasis and the overall size of the map is finite) or when the city has gone irretrievably down the tubes you can, at least, have a satisfying massive earthquake. Or, on the SNES, Bowser. It’s the old alchemical two-step, solve et coagula, tuned to still be satisfying over a quarter-century on.

Perhaps, then, it is time to unpack the metaphor of Populous. As I said, the underlying game is in a large part a fantasy of the video game itself, and indeed of all games - the exercise of power over a symbolic system. Or, in other words, it is the fantasy of magic. Which brings us, inexorably, to the point of this project - its daring statement of intent. A magickal ritual to destroy Gamergate.

The particulars of this are, of course, something I will leave vague. This is part of the basic tactics involved in conducting a magickal ritual to destroy Gamergate. What it lacks in making the slightest bit of sense, it makes up for in posing an Outside Context Problem to Gamergate - one that their well-rehearsed media training (“it’s actually about ethics in video game criticism”) simply has no obvious ways to counteract. I mean, what are they going to do, call the project completely insane? Of course it is. That’s the point. That and the fact that, because I refuse to actually define what a magickal ritual to destroy Gamergate is, I am in the useful position of simultaneously getting to adjudicate who wins this magical war (since I’m the only one who can be clearly said to understand its rules) and being one side of it.

All of that said, there are rules. There are always rules - that’s how games work, and this is, if nothing else, a game. It is tempting, of course, to simply go the Populous route, set off a few volcanos, incinerate all of my nemeses, and call it a day. But this is, in the end, futile. The rules do not allow it to succeed. All one can destroy is a symbolic Gamergate, after all. No, within the logic of magic, the only way to destroy Gamergate is first to build it, residential zone by residential zone, and then reveal, in its construction, a flaw that renders its collapse inevitable.

Here, at least, we are helped by the fact that the work is already done. Indeed, that is the secret history of the Super Nintendo Project: the fact that Gamergate happened. This, at least, is reasonably sound cultural analysis; Gamergate emerged out of a gaming culture, and that culture has its genesis here the same as I do. Or, to put it another way, Gamergate is the Nemesis lurking within this cultural moment, a dark Other that lurks on the edges of my own memory.

But what of the terrain excavated so far belongs to Nemesis, and what is safe? Some individual moments seem clear. The Genesis is implicitly Nemesis’s, although it is not as though the Super Nintendo can then be free of its influence. Populous is more Nemesis than not, SimCity vice versa. Super Mario World is almost completely free of Nemesis’s taint. But this only leads to new questions, most obviously, to whom does the psychochronographic terrain that is not Nemesis’s belong? Clearly we must dig deeper, depress the land again, until the rich sea beneath at last emerges. (Strange how digging deeper and building are, in this context, synonyms. Solve et coagula.)

CREATE ORDER FROM CHAOS
ActRaiser, then. A strange game of a strange historical moment. Coming out in November of 1991, it’s the third game of this simulator/god game aesthetic to drop on the platform - clearly something was in the air in late 1991 when it came to putting this sort of game on the console. But what is interesting about ActRaiser is that it’s not really this sort of game, as it were. It has a god game aspect, but these sections are interspersed between a bog-standard side-scrolling platformer with slightly suspect jumping and hit detection. It’s not bad, certainly - the story of the Super Nintendo is in part the story of the death of the side-scrolling platformer, but it’s one of those deaths via last golden age, and even the b-list is pretty good. But it does not sparkle.

Nor do the god game sections, which are in effect the “World n-2” sections of three-part levels, coming between an introductory sidescrolling level that leads to a miniboss, and a climactic one against a larger and more difficult boss. Like Populous, the god business is largely secondary - the real game involves shooting flying monsters with a bow and arrow by navigating around a two-dimensional plane, with a side game of directing the expansion of the town over which you fight.

But ActRaiser ends up being a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A mediocre platformer (as its sequel turned out to be) is uninteresting, and a straight god game of this design would be unfit for release, but as an experience to toggle back and forth between, it’s oddly compelling.

It is also, unlike SimCity and Populous, original to the Super Nintendo, the product of the Japan-to-America cultural pipeline that still defined the American video game industry. Specifically, it was the product of Enix, who had done the Dragon Warrior series for the NES, and who had a charming run on the Super Nintendo producing a series of idiosyncratic genre hybrids, many of which we will cover because I have a terrible soft spot for them.

It is in some ways unsurprising that there would be a Japanese iteration of the god game. A warm fuzzy sense of spirituality is a common theme across the Japanese games of the period - a sense of the divine as a sort of benevolent spirit of nature to live in harmony with. ActRaiser pushes it further than most, what with the player being “the Master” (simply “God” in the original Japanese, with the villain explicitly being Satan), a good and loving deity trying to reclaim the world from the forces of evil. In practice, however, the player does not control the Master. Instead he controls, in the god game sections, a cherubic angel, and in the action sections, an animated statue. In other words, the player is demiurge, controlling a midpoint between the world his avatar seeks to save and the paternal lawgiver who sets the mission.

Which brings us back to control machines, these being, after all, what video games are. Systems of rules that it is pleasurable to live under. In this regard, then, the relationship with magic is at once obvious and inevitable.

But what of the relation to cities?

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sons of the Harpy

Brought to you by my backers on Patreon. There's a new Milestone there, by the way, as we just unlocked the Marcelo Camargo post today. So at $325, $10 from where we are now, I'll do a post on Night of the Doctor. 

State of Play

The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:

The Lion, Tyrion Lannister
Lions of Dorne: Jaime Lannister
Lions of Casterly Rock: Cersei Lannister
Dragons of Mereen: Daenerys Targaryen
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Mockingbirds of Winterfell: Petyr Baelish
Roses of King's Landing: Margery Tyrell
Burning Hearts of the Wall: Stannis Baratheon, Mellisandre
Snakes of Dorne: Elaria Sand
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
Direwolves of Winterfell: Sansa Stark
Chains of Dorne: Bronn
Swords of Mereen: Dario Noharis
Butterflies of Mereen: Missandrei
Stags of King's Landing: Tommen Baratheon
With the Bear, Jorah Mormont

The episode is in eight parts. The first is one minute long and is set in Volantis. The opening image is of a boat in the harbor at night.

The second is three minutes long and is set on a ship in the Narrow Sea. The transition is by image, from ship to ship, any by family, from Tyrion Lannister to Jaime.

The third is ten minutes long; it is set in King's Landing. The first part is three minutes long; the transition is by family, from Jaime Lannister to Cersei.

The fourth is nine minutes long and is in two parts; it is set on the Wall. The first part is six minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Margery walking away to boys sparring in the yard of Castle Black. The other three minutes long; the transition is by image, from Jon Snow at his desk to Stannis at his.

The fifth part is five minutes long and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by image, from a candle in Stannis's office to Sansa lighting candles, and by dialogue, from Stannis to Sansa and Littlefinger talking about him.

The sixth is nine minutes long and is set in Dorne. The transition is by image, from Sansa in the dark of the crypt to Jaime and Bronn's boat rowing ashore in the dark.

The seventh is three minutes long and is set on a small boat. The transition is by hard cut, from the Sand Snakes to an establishing shot of the boat.

The eighth is six minutes long and is set in Mereen. The transition is by dialogue, from Jorah and Tyrion talking about Daenerys to Daenerys. The final image is of a mess of bodies, including Grey Worm and Ser Barristan Selmy.

Braavos is empty.

Review

It is difficult not to think of the first four episodes of Season Five as something of a unit, given their simultaneous release. And while the leak was unintentional (though evidently unproblematic, with "The Wars to Come" bringing a record high rating for the show, although subsequent episodes have been roughly level with the fourth season, and this is the first season in which the lowest rated episode will not beat the highest rated of the previous), it came from the official HBO screeners, which sent out the first four episodes as a unified block.

It's easy, watching this, to see the logic. The episode ends with a double death, both of them characters who are still alive in the books. In a season that has in part been about negotiating the transition to the television show being ahead of the books, ending your preview with such a decisive and fundamental break is huge. I mean, Barristan is a POV character towards the end of A Dance with Dragons and into The Winds of Winter. Killing him here isn't just a detail (as, ultimately, the killing of Grey Worm could easily be), but a massive alteration to the range of things that Daenerys's story can do from this point. Even in the immediate term, the impact is huge - Daenerys has lost half of her closest advisers in one shot. Her inner circle at this point consists of Missandrei and Daario. Jorah's boat can't make it to Mereen fast enough.

The other interesting thing this episode does is to tacitly link the Sons of the Harpy to the Sparrows, two violent and seemingly populist movements. The Sparrows are clearly being manipulated by external powers, which suggests quietly that the Harpies are as well, but equally, anyone who thinks that Cersei actually has control over the Sparrows is daft. In both cases the movements are in fact instabilities - points where the system of power and authority is simply being shown to have fundamental limits.

In this light, the pattern repeats across the board. The Dornish plot can be understood both as an illustration of the declining power of the Iron Throne, which can no longer keep the Seven Kingdoms in line, and of Dorian Martell, whose hold is challenged by the Sand Snakes, a smaller and more elite sort of rebellion that nevertheless carries a populist energy. Sansa represents a populism of the North. And, of course, the Wall continues to illustrate a similar sense of unease in terms of the Wildlings, who have the theoretical capacity to reunite and smash the Wall the moment Stannis leaves. Everywhere power frays, leaving Westeros less like a tinderbox waiting for a spark and more like a bed of dried hay upon which sparks are raining down. Or perhaps just like a thing that is on fire.

On to specific quality. First, it's notable that the episode is in a small number of parts, with three sequences at nine minutes or longer, and only Dorne and Volantis getting multiple parts. Everything is an extended sequence. King's Landing gets the longest single scene, and in many ways sets up the chaos in Mereen, not just with the Harpy/Sparrow parallels, but with the move to put a character in peril that isn't in the books, namely Loras. (Who, like Grey Worm and Barristan, is conspicuous by his lack of series regular status.) The particulars of how King's Landing departs from the books, where the plot is based heavily on using Cersei as an unreliable narrator, is probably more a Brief Treatise sort of issue than a review issue, but the effect is compelling. Margery's disbelieving frustration at Tommen's cowardice is particularly good, and the imminent return of Diana Rigg can only be called a good thing.

Dorne is also a thing of genuine delight. That Jaime and Bronn are a hilarious double act is hardly unexpected - their training scenes in Season Four were delights as well. But the particulars are still brilliant. Coster-Waldau's ability to get laughs by waving his fake hand around is tremendous, and the swordfight is an absolute hoot, especially the look on his face when he catches his opponent's sword.

Other plots are more meandering. The Wall finally has its first dud of an episode, returning to the bad old days of outright wheel-spinning. (Mellisandre attempting to seduce Jon Snow is particularly painful.) Stephen Dillane continues his demonstration of comic timing, and his scene with Shireen is terribly sweet, but it doesn't hide the fact that nothing happens anywhere in the nine minute Wall sequence. Although the mention of Jon Snow's parentage ties in nicely with the discussion of Lyanna and Rhaegar between Littlefinger and Sansa (which does seem to imply that Littlefinger knows Jon Snow's parentage), and in turn with Barristan's reminiscing about Rhaegar in the final sequence, all of which feels remarkably like setting up the parentage reveal for this season, which would be a heck of a twist.

(As for Sansa, her plot continues to be suitably dread-laden, with bad things inevitable on the horizon, but as with the Wall, they remain firmly on the horizon, instead of things that happen now.)

The resulting episode is an odd one. It does what seems the first and foremost goal of a Game of Thrones episode, which is to say that it makes one excited for the next one. And its big moments are indeed opulently big - indeed, the biggest to date this season. But the foundation around those moments is particularly soft.

Ranking

1. High Sparrow
2. The Wars to Come
3. Sons of the Harpy
4. The House of Black and White

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Saturday Waffling (May 2nd, 2015)

Hello all. Just time for a quick one of these today - I just cut the Three Doctors commentary with Jack (out next week sometime) and I've been otherwise spending the day drawing up notes for my interview with Theodore Beale, which is an actual thing that's happening.

So, May. Wow there's a lot going on in May. Comics have Secret Wars, obviously, which is probably going to be very silly, but also Providence starting up over at Avatar, which is Alan Moore seemingly doing the From Hell of H.P. Lovecraft. Neal Stephenson's got a new book out, Seveneves, which is always exciting. And Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell spins up on the BBC, from Peter Harness and Toby Haynes. Possible I'll be doing episode-by-episode coverage of that, actually; more as this story develops. 

So, what are you looking forward to this month?

See you tomorrow with "Sons of the Harpy," and Monday with SimCity, Populous, and ActRaiser

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Great Gran'pappy of All Dirges (The Last War in Albion Part 94: Not the World Cup)

This is the sixth of eleven parts of The Last War in Albion Chapter Ten, focusing on Alan Moore's Bojeffries Saga. An omnibus of all eleven parts is available on Smashwords. If you are a Kickstarter backer or a Patreon backer at $2 or higher per week, instructions on how to get your complimentary copy have been sent to you.

The Bojeffries Saga is available in a collected edition that can be purchased in the US or in the UK.

Previously in The Last War in Albion: The Bojeffries Saga was hardly the only minor work of Moore's early career.

"A dirge... space-trucker talk for a hard luck story. And this was the great gran'pappy of all dirges." - Alan Moore, "The Killer in the Cab"

Figure 715: Alan Moore's cartoons alongside
his glossary of trucker slang. (From The BJ and
the Bear Annual 1982)
For instance, in 1981 before Warrior had even launched, when his career consisted of The Stars My Degradation, Maxwell the Magic Cat, his Doctor Who work, and his earliest Future Shocks, Moore had a gig writing and illustrating text pieces for Grandreams’s 1982 BJ and the Bear Annual. BJ and the Bear was an American television series about a trucker (BJ) who drove around the country with his pet chimpanzee (Bear) that debuted with a pilot movie in October of 1978 and wrapped up in May of 1981 forty-eight episodes later. Its British 1982 Annual was, in other words, a marginal piece of cultural ephemera even when it was printed at the end of 1981. It did, however, contain a three page illustrated glossary of trucker slang compiled by Alan Moore that helpfully informed readers that “keep your nose between the ditches and Smokey out of your britches” meant “drive safely,” a piece that got recycled a year later for the 1983 Dukes of Hazzard Annual. The BJ and the Bear Annual also featured a three page illustrated account of various stories about monkeys, such as the story of how some villagers from Eelberdale, in the Hargesia region of Somalia, fought a pitched two-day battle with attacking monkeys, resulting in injuries to six villagers and the death of three hundred and sixty-three monkeys, and the story of a couple of chimpanzees attacking police in Tarzana California, a town that sprung up around a ranch owned by Edgar Rice Burroughs, which Moore ends by fondly musing on how “right there, in the home of the Lord of the Jungle, the apes of Tarzana struck a blow for animal liberation!”

Figure 716: Illustration to Moore's "Sawdust
Memories."
These stories are also instances of Moore’s early career dabbling in straight prose writing - a sideline from comics writing that exists across his career. This is not the first instance of this to emerge in the War - several of Moore’s contributions to The Daredevils also fall under this umbrella. And these are not the only examples. For instance, in 1984 Moore contributed a short story, “Sawdust Memories,” to the magazine Knave. The story is, aside from not being a comic, largely typical of Moore - its premise concerns a bar, Tuckers, that is “the only West-end niterie catering exclusively to the puppet fraternity,” a premise with no shortage of mirrors and parallels across his career. Similarly typical is the litany of references. The story features numerous jokes and allusions to various puppet shows - for instance, the bar was founded by and named after Tex Tucker, the sheriff character in the Gerry Anderson show Four Feather Falls

Figure 717: Football is not necessarily the most
natural subject for Moore. (1982)
All of these pieces are interesting not just for their content, however, but because of the way in which they are compelling reminders of the material culture that Moore emerged from. The trucker annuals, for instance, fit into a long tradition of British annuals, inexpensive things to be gifted at Christmas, and a close cousin of the summer specials that Moore first discovered Mick Anglo’s Marvelman in. Knave is a longstanding British softcore porn mag - one that Neil Gaiman also submitted to early in his career. They are marginal works, to be sure, but the psychochronographic territory on which they exist is nevertheless as deep as that of any major work. Indeed, even the most preposterously marginal-seeming of Moore’s early works can provide an extended and nuanced insight into the larger culture. For instance,  in between the BJ and the Bear and Dukes of Hazzard Annuals came a three-page contribution to Marvel UK’s Not the World Cup: The Official Souvenir Brochure. The piece envisions a television interview between Ted Drinkproblem and “the controversial star player of the Republic of Santa Mafiosa, Ricardo del Wolverine,” who shares a variety of helpful football tips such as how best to foul opposing players. (“Many beginnairs assume that eet iz best to foul the pairson ‘oo ‘az the futbaal. Not so. Eet iz far bettair to creepul the smallest and weakest playair, whether ‘ee ‘az the baal or not,” del Wolverine explains, before advising that it’s best to hit the player with a four-by-two and, if necessary, finish him off with an industrial rock drill while the ref isn’t looking.) The piece ends in a blaze of bewildering homoeroticism as del Wolverine demonstrates in detail how to go about kissing your teammates, working his way up the host’s arm while singing Barry Manilow’s “Feelings.” It is, to say the least, not Moore’s finest work, although the suggestion that scoring goals is best accomplished by calmly showing the goalkeeper a photograph of his family being menaced by a mobster with a tommy gun is a pretty good gag. 

But regardless of its quality, Not the World Cup highlights the cultural importance of football, a sport whose history in many ways is literally and directly the history of class relations in Britain. The notion of a ballgame involving one’s feet originates in numerous cultures, but the specifically British game dates back to at least the 9th century, where a version is referenced in the Historia Brittonum, which also provides the earliest reference to King Arthur. Originally played as a Shrovetide festivity in which neighboring towns and villages would attempt to drag an inflated pig’s bladder across the open space between the towns, with the objective being to get the ball into the neighboring town. The game had few rules - teams could be of unlimited size, and the allowed means of moving the ball were apparently anything that did not result in murder or manslaughter - but was nevertheless a recognizable antecedent to the modern game. The game survived numerous attempts to ban it over the centuries, generally on variations of the principle that it was inappropriate for poor people to have that much fun. Eventually and inevitably, however, the game was co-opted and codified by rich people, with public schools gradually codifying a set of rules until, in 1848, at an eight hour meeting of representatives from various schools, a set of organized rules now known as the Cambridge rules were written down. These formed much of the basis for the rules created fifteen years later by the nascent Football Association. 

Figure 718: Edmund Creswell and the 1872 Royal Engineers.
Over time, the Football Association’s control over the sport grew. In 1872, they organized the first edition of the FA Cup, which the Wanderers won in an upset victory over the Royal Engineers after Engineers player Edmund Creswell broke his collarbone, effectively reducing the team to ten men as the concept of substitutions had not yet been introduced to the rules.  The popularity of this event led to virtually all of the clubs in England wanting to join, and by extension agreeing to the FA-dictated ruleset. But while the FA had regulatory control over the game, the game continued to enjoy popularity among the working class, due largely to the fact that the basic requirements for playing it were little more than an open space and a ball, objects which even the most deprived areas of Britain could scrounge up. In 1822, a northern club, Blackburn Rovers, reached the final of the FA Cup for the first time, and in 1885 the Football Association finally caved to the inevitable and allowed for professional players, a move that benefitted clubs in working class areas, where amateur players had difficulties balancing the game with their workdays, a challenge not shared by the posh public schoolboy amateurs of the southern clubs. 

Figure 719: Marvel's Not the World Cup.
As the game spread across the world over the course of the 20th century, this dualism whereby a wealthy elite regulates (and ultimately profits from) the game while the working class provides the bulk of the players was mirrored wherever the game sprouted, which eventually became enough countries that, in 1904, FIFA, an international version of the Football Association, was founded in Paris, and, in 1930, organized the first World Cup. The 1982 edition of this tournament was played in Spain, with England maintaining their general record of limping pathetically out of the competition, this time going out in the second round after a pair of 0-0 draws with West Germany and Spain. But the fact of England’s mediocrity at yet another sport they’d invented did not detract from the event’s popularity, with no end of souvenir merchandise being produced, including Marvel UK’s humorous Not the World Cup

More to the point, football, in England, consists of a hierarchy of numerous leagues, starting from what was in 1982 the Football League First Division, but is now the FA-independent Premier League, and continuing down through what are now twenty-four tiers, with four hundred and eighty separate leagues and divisions containing around seven thousand teams running from the Premier League, with internationally recognized icons like Manchester United and Chelsea, all the way down to the Mid-Sussex Football League Division Eleven, where the Scayne’s Hill Reserves fight it out with Crawley United for the possibility of promotion to the twenty-third tier of the pyramid, the Mid-Sussex Football League Division Ten. The sheer size of this structure, with a football team for every seven square miles, or one for every 7500 people, means that football is woven into the basic cultural fabric of the country. Like The Beano and The Dandy, English football is just something you have, like rickets. 

Figure 720: The first appearance of Roy of the
Rovers
 in Tiger.
And so, of course, this was always reflected in the country’s comics, with football comics being a staple of the British comics magazine for virtually the entire history of the industry. The iconic example of the genre is Roy of the Rovers, an IPC strip originating in Tiger in 1954, before spinning off to headline its own comic in 1976. It chronicled the adventures of Roy Race, a lifelong football fan who made his debut for his beloved Melchester Rovers, rather improbably, in a European Cup final after an injury to the team’s regular striker, scoring the winning goal. This provided a template for decades of subsequent stories, which generally featured similarly improbable and heroic victories won with nothing more than good old-fashioned British sportsmanship and grit. Indeed, the importance of football to the national culture is crucial to understanding why, of the numerous violent and over the top strips in Action, it was Look Out for Lefty (originally drawn by Moore’s Not the World Cup artist, Barrie Mitchell) that, for most of the magazine’s glory days, attracted the most controversy - because unlike the sympathetic Nazi of Hellman of Hammer Force or the continual explosions of red mist offered by Hook Jaw, Look Out for Lefty offered a sympathetic portrayal of working class violence grounded firmly in the material realities of working class, and, more to the point, in the real spectre of football hooliganism, which had left Leeds United facing a ban on European competition after their fans rioted during and after their defeat by Bayern Munich in the 1975 European Cup final less than a year before Action made its debut.

Figure 721: Blake's engraving of a portrait of William
Cowper. 
So even though his contribution to Not the World Cup is not particularly good, and even though it is clearly not a strip Moore was particularly enthused about, it was nevertheless a work that is situated deep in the specifically British comics industry that Moore both grew up reading the products of and sought employment in. This industry, it is important to recall, was the sole industry he aspired to work in when he started out, and while it’s clear he’d spent time thinking about the idea of working in American comics, Len Wein’s fateful phone call in May 1983 was still sufficiently out of left field that his initial reaction was to assume the caller “was David Lloyd doing a funny voice.” The career that Moore imagined was much closer to the one implied by a writer who dashes off glossaries of trucker lingo and humor strips about football in amidst the Future Shocks and puppet fiction for skin mags, and perhaps by things like his pair of fumetti for Scream - a career in which the opportunity to write Skizz for 2000 AD would be a highlight and not a footnote, and one that is perhaps perfectly embodied by a 1980 photo of Moore inking a Roscoe Moscow strip hunched over an old Ottoman because the heat had gone off in his upstairs office. That was the sort of career enjoyed by his mentor, Steve Moore, after all - a career Moore later described in Unearthing thusly: “the days grind forward measured in worn-out typewriter ribbons. In 1974, he lands a gig at Thorpe & Porter’s House of Hammer, scripts The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, captions oozing his still-burgeoning obsession with Cathay. 1975, he’s writing endless children’s annuals, documenting the Sex Secrets of Bankok for a soft-core relaunch of Tit Bits, ducking furtively behind the mystifying pseudonym of Pedro Henry. When the work is thin, down to the Croxley onion-skin, he’ll work a day or two for Bram Stokes at the relocated Dark They Were and Golden Eyed along the faintly miserable defile of St. Anne’s Court.” And while one might be tempted to argue that a writer of Alan Moore’s skill and caliber was never going to be confined to such meager grounds, one might also recall Moore’s description of Blake in Felpham: “their cottage, once the early beatific ozone rush is gone from the sea air, is damp and poorly humid. Mildewed pointillism bleeds into the stipple of his miniatures. Angry at his subservience to a lesser writer, to a lesser man, he comes to loath the thing that he depends upon. Hayley, his patron, is a self-inflated mediocrity and yet so generous. The work, the fine commissions, portrait cameos of poets. He can see them, funeral processions of giant phantoms on the Sussex shore. Milton and Dante, Chaucer, William Cowper lost and broken, shying at the bar of his own lunacy. A lesson there. His drawing paper cockles with the damp. He put a brave face on it all, one of the only faces he has left.”

This vision is not some mere alternate history of a world where there never was a War, where Moore’s Scottish devil had no great master whose career he could illustrate, where a Hampshire journalist never gets a vital lesson in writing comic scripts, and where a boy from Essex and games journalist from Bath don’t have a comics industry waiting to receive the next British genius with open arms. Rather, it is a career that happened alongside the familiar narrative of Moore’s chain of successes from 1979 to 1986 - a career that consists of nothing more or less than the sum total of works that don’t fit into the tale of Moore’s relentless march to success, and even some, like much of his 2000 AD work, that do. [continued]

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Comic Reviews (Wednesday April 29th, 2015)

From worst to best of what I paid your hard-earned Patreon donations for.

X-Men #26

Regrettably, this G. Willow Wilson arc simply didn't work. He script had interesting ideas, but between subpar writers and a general sense of this being an auxiliary book running out the clock until Secret Wars, this just landed with the dull thud of a story that's not going to be staying in print. Alas.

The Multiversity #2

Grant Morrison takes his usual superhero story to seemingly new conceptual limits, managing to change it not at all in the process. There are moments of distinct cleverness, but one kind of suspects that the final joke, with Nix Uotan wishing himself $800, is Grant Morrison laughing all the way to the bank.

Silver Surfer #11

The formalist gubbins are in overdrive, and the result is perhaps more a comic to respect than enjoy, with the cleverness really coming in at the expense of actually resolving the Surfer and Dawn's conflict in any character-based way.

Daredevil #15

A perfectly competent comic in which Waid plays his big twist both to go into the end of his run and to put the toys back in the box. But Daredevil has been a lower tier book for me for a while now, and in a week as top-heavy as this, this is about where "perfectly fun" ends up.

New Avengers #33

Yeah, I've gotta say, I'm not thrilled with the tying into Secret Wars here. The waiting until the same week to release both of these drained momentum from Hickman's already momentum-lacking run-in. That this seems to, unless I've misunderstood the plot, actually tie into the story several issues earlier than where we are right now makes it feel all the more insubstantial. There are some neat ideas in the exposition here, but wow, it's as overworked as you might have feared. And... eh. Countdowns are never satisfying at the end when it comes to event comics, are they?

Avengers #44

It's very funny to see the Ultimate characters and the 616 characters in the same panel, but talking with different capitalization styles. That's proper comedy, that is. As for the big Captain America/Iron Man fight at the end... why? I mean, to provide some sort of thematic unity to Hickman's Avengers run, but given that his Avengers run is going to go down as little more than a 77-issue prelude to Secret Wars, which is to say, and this is worth stressing, the prelude to Secret Wars is longer than Alan Moore's Swamp Thing run, Sandman, Transmet, or The Invisibles... who cares? Why are we doing this? Oh god, I'm having existential doubts about my pull account again.

The New Avengers: Ultron Forever #1

Meanwhile, in "we should have a movie tie-in or two, eh?" we have a mashup of Marvel history punching robots. Robot Odin. A two-headed Hulk. Alan Davis art. what can I say, I really just wanted to put this ahead of Hickman's Avengers.

Crossed Badlands #76

Apocalyptic horror done right, which is possibly to say as only Avatar can do it, with massive and horrifying levels of depravity. This doesn't really push the concept of "Homo Tortor" very far, but it does the character work that the first book didn't necessarily, and this is still tremendously compelling.

Bitch Planet #4

A beautifully non-compliant comic. You are reading this, right? In any case, the plot thickens and starts to cohere, which was a risk over the first three issues. Career-best work for Deconnick. And De Landro's no slouch either, absolutely nailing some tricky scenes. Really, really fucking good.

Monday, April 27, 2015

There is an Ocean in my Soul Where the Waters do not Curve (F-Zero)

Anna Wiggins will be contributing a guest post for each year's worth of games covered in the Super Nintendo Project. For 1991, she's talking about F-Zero.

It begins with sound. When I think about F-Zero, it is the soundtrack that sticks in my mind. Where other games I had played had background music, F-Zero had songs. Big Blue was the most memorable. These memories are pleasant. This music has been a part of my internal soundtrack for most of my life, occasionally earworming in over the years, always an oddly comforting sense memory.

And this sort of sound was unprecedented. The number of bits in a gaming system was on the one hand meaningless to me; at seven years old, I had no idea what the technical difference between an “8-bit system” and a “16-bit system” were. But on the other hand these terms held an iconic power; clearly the SNES was twice as powerful, and so its games would be twice as cool. If I’d had a little more knowledge, I probably would have expected them to be 256 times as cool.

So this, for me, was my first real taste of what “16-bit sound” could do. I was hooked, and after this game music became a much larger part of how I judged games.


(What I didn’t know at the time was that the SNES made considerable improvements to the NES’ sound system, beyond just doubling the size of all the registers. The SNES came equipped with a separate dedicated co-processor for audio processing, the S-SMP, which meant game programmers could spend more cycles doing software manipulation of sound samples without affecting the game’s performance. Separate graphics processing chips were common in consoles already, but a coprocessor dedicated to audio was a leap forward for sound capability, and allowed for a lot of the richness in sound that jumped out at me here.)

Next comes light. This game looked great, with an initially dizzying faux-3d effect that pivoted around as the player’s car turned. I remember being amazed by this, and it’s what made me want to play the game, despite racing games not being the sort of thing I’m naturally inclined to play.

(F-Zero and Pilotwings were both basically tech demos for Mode 7 graphics, though I didn't actually come across the term Mode 7 until much later, when SquareSoft ran television advertisements for Final Fantasy III. “Mode 7” was Nintendo’s great technical superiority claim for the SNES, a counterpoint to Sega’s “Blast Processing”. It sounds less impressive than Blast Processing, and indeed, described from a technical standpoint, it sounds like a fairly humble feature. However, unlike Blast Processing, it can be described from a technical perspective. The SNES graphics hardware had 8 different “modes” for drawing backgrounds, numbered 0-7. (Programmers always start counting from 0. It makes us feel special.) If you know just enough about computer graphics processing to be dangerous, it may seem strange that backgrounds were handled differently than anything else, but console graphics chips at the time had built-in notions about ‘backgrounds’ (things that didn’t move) versus ‘sprites’. (things that did move) Mode 7 was a mode where the background could be rendered in a way that imitated 3d perspective, and quickly rotated and transformed to keep up this illusion as the sprites moved. Really, like everything else in graphics programming, this just required some clever matrix algebra.)

Finally, tactile sensation. These memories come last, because I spent a lot more time watching and listening to F-Zero than I did playing. The SNES controller was still slightly oversized in my hands in late 1991. My fingers struggling to get used to the shoulder buttons. I never actually figured out how to use the shoulder buttons effectively in F-Zero. In truth, I was pretty bad at video games.

(The SNES controller wasn't that different from the NES controller, all things considered: it had 4 new buttons, but that was all. But this added complexity, and it was part of a trend that continued until controller design more or less settled into the modern Xbox / Playstation style. As controllers got more complicated, the learning curve for video game systems got steeper, which in turn shifted the target age for gaming consoles. In other words, video games grew up with me. Where the Mario, Zelda, and even Sonic franchises were aimed at a pre-teen demographic, Halo and Call of Duty are geared solidly toward late teens and college students. The 18-35 demographic rules, now.)

I always had to share the SNES console with my older brother, and often with my cousins and my brother’s friends. They were almost all older than me, and better at video games. And so I was well accustomed to the ritual of taking turns at video games.

This did not work equally well for all games, though. Fighting games were easy - they were two player, they were over quickly, and controllers changed hands between each fight. Super Mario World, with its save data and repeatable challenges, we conquered cooperatively. But F-Zero was a game with a number of continues and no saveable progress. Which meant the standing rule was ‘play until game over, then switch’.

So, being bad at the game meant I got to play for about 10 minutes at a time, often followed by an hour or more before I got another turn. So, playing F-Zero, I learned how to enjoy watching other people play video games. This was a defense mechanism and a rationalization; watching was a consolation prize, and on some level I knew it. Eventually it developed into a legitimate interest, and broadened into a general love of watching people do things they are good at. But not in 1991. In 1991, it was just frustrating.

I was 7 years old in 1991. My primary pastimes were reading, playing with Lego, and playing video games. All of my hobbies were things that could be enjoyed alone. You might reasonably (and correctly) infer that I didn't have many friends.

When I did try to engage with other children, it didn't usually end well. I was ‘weird’, or ‘annoying’, and social interactions often led to conflicts I didn't understand. This pushed me further and further into solitary activities. I wasn't unhappy, though. The depression and hopelessness that came with the surge of testosterone into my body was still a few years away. Yes, I was bullied and shamed for being the weird kid. But I didn't particularly care. I had books, and video games, and a whole world of private stories and secret histories. I was alone, but I wasn't lonely.

But video games were a solitary activity centered around a finite resource; something I enjoyed but had to share. And F-Zero was an example where that sharing didn't work well, so my memories of it are intertwined with frustration and tension. Whenever I picked up the controller, I knew that I wouldn’t have a chance to play again for a long time. This made playing stressful, because every mistake brought me closer to another long wait. The consequences of failing were disproportionate. This made the game less fun. And so, ultimately, my engagement with this game was short. I started declining my turn. No, I’ll just watch. I’d rather go play outside, anyway.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

High Sparrow

Game of Thrones Season Five reviews are supported by my backers on Patreon. We crossed $300 this week, so I'll be doing the whole season. Assuming, you know, that nobody backs out or anything. There's a new milestone at $310, however, for a bonus post on the episode leaks of Doctor Who Season Seven. Which might be interesting to Game of Thrones fans as well, all things considered. 

State of Play

The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly.

The Lion, Tyrion Lannister
Lions of King's Landing: Cersei Lannister, Tommen Baratheon
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Mockingbirds of Moat Cailin: Petyr Baelish
Roses of King's Landing: Margery Tyrell
Burning Hearts of the Wall: Stannis Baratheon
Ships of the Wall: Davos Seaworth
The Spider, Lord Varys
Kraken of Winterfell: Reek
Direwolves of Moat Cailin: Sansa Stark
Direwolves of Braavos: Arya Stark
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
Shields of Moat Cailin: Brienne of Tarth
Coins of Braavos: No one
Flayed Men of Winterfell: Roose Bolton, Ramsey Bolton
With the Bear, Jorah Mormont

Meereen is vacant.

The episode is in eleven parts. The first part is three minutes long and is set in Braavos. The opening image is of one of the many statues of gods' faces in the House of Black and White.

The second is seven minutes long and is set in King's Landing. The transition is by hard cut, from Arya to an establishing shot of the city.

The third is three minutes long and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by hard cut, from Cersei looking angry to Bolton men outside

The fourth is nine minutes long and is set at Moat Cailin. The transition is by dialogue, from Roose Bolton talking about Ramsey's forthcoming marriage to Sansa, his bride-to-be.

The fifth is four minutes long and is set on the Wall. The transition is by dialogue, from Brienne talking about Stannis to Stannis.

The sixth is six minutes long and is set in Braavos. The transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Arya Stark.

The seventh is two minutes long and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by family, from Arya to Sansa.

The eighth is five minutes long and is set on the Wall. The transition is by family, from Sansa to Jon Snow.

The ninth is seven minutes long and is set in King's Landing. The transition is by image, from the ritual of execution for Janos Slynt to the High Septon's ritualistic sex game.

The tenth is three minutes long and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by causation, from Qyburn writing a message for Littlefinger to the scene where he receives it.

The eleventh is seven minutes long and is set in Volantis. The transition is by hard cut, from Littlefinger to an establishing shot of Tyrion and Varys's cart outside the city. The final shot is of Jorah Mormont capturing Tyrion Lannister.

Review

There is not quite such a thing as a default pattern for Game of Thrones, simply because the show's basic function depends so heavily on breaking the pattern - for instance, by putting the Purple Wedding in the second episode of the fourth season, thus defying expectations about the speed at which a season gets off to a start. But if you were to suggest a generalized pattern for a season, the third episode would be a point of drastic acceleration.

Certainly that is the case here. Most obviously, the hinted becomes actual as we realize that Sansa is going to be taking on the Jeyne Poole plot from the books and marry Ramsey Bolton. This is the marquee change, and one that is easy to see doing poorly, but certainly possible to see doing amazingly. The obvious peril is that it's a rehash of Sansa and Joffrey. We've seen Sansa and a sadistic husband with power over her before. What we haven't seen, though, is Sansa doing this from a position of power, in Winterfell. The random servant who whispers to her that the North remembers makes it clear that this is not King's Landing, and Ramsey is presented, in a real sense, as hopelessly out of his depth, only knowing one tactic (flay people). If this is the story we're doing, and Sansa is going to be the self-rescuing princess, well, that's really tempting.

And certainly the number of extra layers involved is tempting. Sansa as the self-rescuing princess endangered by Ramsey and the Boltons around her as Stannis sieges Winterfell and Brienne lurks about the edges of the story looking for an opportunity to kill Stannis is... absolutely fantastic television. Not least because for the first time in Game of Thrones nobody can say with any confidence how that set of elements is going to interact and play out.

Elsewhere the plots proceed more book-predictably, but in every case there's a sense of a show that's finally starting to enjoy the potential of its premises. Arya is, I think, the plot that works least well this episode - simply put, she's not really given much to do, instead suffering the common fate of Game of Thrones characters whereby they are suddenly deserted by all of their competence so as to make sure they don't accidentally advance the plot. (The lowlight here is surely Arya asking which of the many faces in the House of Black and White is the Many-Faced God. Really, Arya?) But even here there's a moment of genuine beauty in her inability to throw away Needle and her hiding of it. Not only does it set up the inevitable moment of her reclaiming it (and it's safe to say that there has never been a scene of Arya reclaiming Needle that has not been wonderful), but it captures the conflict and plot driving her character perfectly in a single image.

The Wall is similarly full of good images: The Jon Snow/Janos Slynt execution is both a fun scene (the cut back to Jon finishing his ale before he goes out is hilarious) and one that sells the fun of "Jon Snow as Lord Commander." But I actually prefer the scene of him telling Stannis that he's grooming his page for command, all earnest and confident, simply because Stephen Dillane is secretly a brilliant comic actor.

And, of course, there's Cersei in King's Landing. Her scene with Margery, in which Margery throws masterful shade ("it's a little early for us" indeed), is a thing of absolute beauty - probably the single best sequence in the story. But so is her follow-up - her spectacularly ill-advised alliance with the High Sparrow, which the show doesn't belabor the idiocy of, instead simply depicting her actions and letting the audience pick up on the sheer folly of them. (Contrast with Littlefinger, where the show contrives to have him interact directly with his obvious mistake, admitting that he doesn't know much about Ramsey Bolton to his face.) This is, thus far, the plot with the least said and the most shades of subtlety, mostly to its strength.

I have, obviously, left Tyrion out of the mix so far, mainly to set up a nice sort of structural thing where I open and close talking about the use of the unknown. Tyrion's plot was heavily altered in the first episode via the excising of an ill-advised subplot about an obviously fake Aegon Targaryen. And this, in turn, called into some doubt over where it would go from there. So the use of Jorah to suddenly take the plot back towards the book is clever. For those who haven't read the books - i.e. essentially the entire audience - it's a great game-changing twist of the sort that makes good cliffhangers. But it manages to be surprising for those who have as well, simply because the show has by this point engineered circumstances where fealty to the books is a form of surprise. Which is, again, a terribly exciting place to be.

So on the whole, by some margin the best episode of the season so far, simply because it's the first one to move past setup and into demonstrating the appeal of this particular configuration of the board.

Shall we start ranking episodes? It was fun for Doctor Who.

1. High Sparrow
2. The Wars to Come
3. The House of Black and White